To celebrate my 60th birthday yesterday, I had dinner with the Secretary General of the United Nations. The Washington Post's Dana Milbank covered the event in his puckish (my wife called it "snarky") style.
Okay, so I had dinner with Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and 300 other people. And the Washington Post didn't even mention me. Secretary General Ban and I were only sitting at adjacent tables. But I did get a grip-and-grin photo op with him before the banquet, and after his speech I was one of three evangelical leaders invited to give a brief response.
The banquet itself was a joint effort of the National Association of Evangelicals and the Micah Challenge. It was the closing event of the NAE's semi-annual board meeting and the opening event of the Global Leaders Forum. Organizations involved in the Forum (beyond the NAE and Micah Challenge) included Bread for the World, World Relief, Frontiers, The Salvation Army, Tearfund, the Evangelical Environmental Network, the Korean Church Coalition, and the UN Foundation and the UN Millennium Campaign.
Attendees at the sold-out event got this message loud and clear:
The UN needs evangelicals to help them hold governments to their promised support for the Millennium Development Goals. One hundred ninety-two nations signed on to the MDG's in 2000 and we are now half-way to the target date of 2015, but without the progress we should have seen by this point, especially in sub-Sarahan Africa. Some nations have been slow in paying their share of the costs.
The MDG's are all good: ensuring universal primary education, fighting hunger and poverty, reducing child mortality and improving maternal health, empowering women, fighting specific diseases like malaria and HIV/AIDS, working for environmental sustainability and a global partnership for development.
Many of these things have already engaged evangelicals, and Secretary General Ban reminded us of that. He also reminded us of the UN's desire to work with faith-based groups. From its beginning in 1945, the UN was engaged with the faith community. Forty-two faith-based non-governmental organizations were involved in founding the organization. Today, 400 religious NGOs are accredited to the UN.
He also quoted Isaiah 58:10 to much applause. "If you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then shall your light rise in the darkness and your gloom be as the noonday."
In a sense, last night's banquet and today's issue-oriented discussions are really less about evangelicals fighting disease and poverty and more about evangelicals working in partnerships–partnerships between Western evangelicals and those in the developing world and partnerships with non-evangelicals.
We cautiously engaged those of other shades of Christian faith and even other religions in the mid-90s when we threw tremendous weight behind the effort to pass the International Religious Freedom Act and the creation of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom. We then enlarged the circle of cooperation to work on legislation to fight sex trafficking and, later, human-rights abuses in North Korea. The circle has expanded yet again as many evangelical leaders are partnering on issues of climate change.
Partnerships give evangelicals a sense of participation and empowerment. It gives us the chance to take on really big issues. That's a strange feeling for a movement whose consciousness is rooted in old-style fundamentalism. Fundamentalism was about being the few and the proud–I mean, the pure. The evangelicalism that emerged in the 1940s hoped for a new engagement with society while maintaining doctrinal and ethical integrity. Its leaders, like first CT editor Carl F. H. Henry and first CT board chair Harold John Ockenga preached a strong social justice message. But the old fundamentalist consciousness still lurks, and these partnerships stretch the evangelical sense of identity.
Despite the uneasiness of some, leaders like Northland Church's Joel Hunter and the NAE's Rich Cizik are plunging ahead with big grins on their faces. I predict we'll see a continuing expansion of these alliances as we move to tackle an increasing number of the really big problems facing God's world.